I’ve always been grateful for the book I read during my first year of preaching ministry that challenged me to spend as much time working on the application of a Scripture text as I spent on its interpretation. Ever since, I’ve operated under the conviction that if I only preach what a passage says and not how we ought to respond to it (what we preachers call the “practical application”) I’ve only done half of my job.
Well, recently I was reading through the New Testament book of James, which may be the most “practical application-friendly” book in the Bible. It’s filled with rich counsel on wisdom, suffering, our speech, ministering to the needy, attitudes of personal favoritism, and more. It’s the book that calls us to be “doers of the word…not merely hearers.” But this time I discovered something in James that I’d never noticed before: how much it says about the spiritual discipline of prayer. For example…
- The PROMISE of prayer: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). The Lord promises that when we seek Him, He will respond!
- The PROFITABILITY of prayer: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). This is what it means when we talk about prayer being life-giving – it unifies, edifies, and provides God’s people with overcoming power.
- The PREVENTION of prayer: “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3). James explains that often the problem with unanswered prayer lies squarely with us. That’s why confession must always precede our requests!
- The PRESENCE of God in prayer: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). As Daniel Henderson often says, God really is pleased to respond when we offer Him our undivided attention!
- The POTENTIAL of prayer: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:13-16). What a reminder that prayer should always be our first resort, and of the extraordinary – even miraculous – power of concerted, corporate, faith-filled prayer.
As Christians, I think that most of us tend to think of prayer as an impractical activity. We’d never come right out and say that, but our actions often prove otherwise. In our worship services, board meetings, committee gatherings, and Bible studies the unspoken notion is, “Let’s pray so we can get down to business”; or, “Let’s take care of business and then ask God to bless it when we close in prayer.”
But James suggests the reverse. In his very “practical” letter to the church he seems to be saying – from the first chapter through the last – that prayer is the most practical thing we can do. Or, as Oswald Chambers so wonderfully puts it in My Utmost for His Highest, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater works; prayer is the greater work.”
One place I’ve seen the proof of this is in our church’s elder meetings. Several months ago we covenanted together as a board that going forward, Scripture-fed prayer would be our first priority. No matter how long or pressing the night’s agenda appeared, we decided we would always seek God’s face first – sometimes for nearly a whole hour. The timing of this decision was especially interesting as we made it amidst what turned out to be a demanding building-acquisition project (along with all of the other more typical church business). But guess what’s happened in the months since? As a rule, our board meetings have become marked by deeper unity, clearer direction, and maybe most miraculous of all, they’ve actually gotten shorter!
So let’s adopt the perspective on prayer that Jesus, James, and the rest of our New Testament heroes shared: that prayer is the most practical thing we can do, in our churches, our families, and our personal walk with Jesus. Let’s make sure that we always seek Him first!
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